Having transformed domestic politics, Tony Blair is now constructing a new idiom for Britain's place in the world in which liberal values can coexist with a proper patriotic prideby David Marquand / March 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
The real interest of James Naughtie’s recent book on the psychodynamics of Tony Blair’s relationship with his chancellor of the exchequer lies in what it fails to say. His book (The Rivals, Fourth Estate) purports to tell the story of a political marriage and, on one level, it does so. Naughtie is a close observer of the Westminster village. He knows and likes both his protagonists and writes about them with sympathy and insight. But his book sits all too comfortably in the idea-free zone which now encompasses most of British political journalism. He is fascinated by the emotional tug-of-war at the heart of the Blair-Brown relationship, the playground battles associated with it, and the feverish gossip they generate. We learn far more than any sensible person would wish to know about the courtiers who swarm around the two men. We watch Brownies and Blairites squaring up to each other like the Jenkinsites and Callaghanites of old. We trace the relentless extension of the Treasury’s tentacles into the uttermost reaches of Whitehall. We patrol the uneasy frontier between Blair’s sphere-the grand flashpoints of Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Europe and (anti-climactically) foot and mouth-and Brown’s domain as the grand vizier of domestic policy.
The complex manoeuvres which led to Brown’s decision not to stand against Blair when John Smith died are described in exhaustive detail. There is much learned speculation about the hint, or half-hint, or possibly half-promise which Blair is alleged to have made to Brown, to the effect that he might not stay on as prime minister for the whole of Labour’s second term, and about its impact on Brown’s psychology. Ideas, principles and beliefs scarcely get a look in. In effect, we are asked to believe that the differences between the two most remarkable Labour politicians of the last quarter century can be reduced to a mix of seething emotion and personal calculation.
What might we learn from a richer account? Almost by definition, Naughtie does not answer that question, but he does prompt one or two thoughts. Ideologically, there is little to choose between the partners to his alleged marriage. I can discern no foundation in the assiduously-peddled notion that Brown is somehow to the left of Blair; that, because he is recognisably part of the Labour culture in which Blair is visibly ill-at-ease, he would like to construct a political economy closer to the social-democratic tradition. In his dour, Calvinist way, Brown has jettisoned as much of that tradition as Blair has done. It is conceivable that, in the silent watches of the night, he has felt more guilty about doing so, but there is no public evidence of any such emotion. The efflorescence of left and centre-left new thinking that marked the early 1990s passed him by as completely as it passed Blair. He is, if anything, even more fixated on the American social model, and more in thrall to what RH Tawney once called the tadpole philosophy of equal opportunity. By the same token, the clich?s of deregulation, reform and liberalisation trip even more easily off his tongue. Despite his Scottish roots, and his longstanding commitment to a Scottish parliament, he is no more sympathetic to the bottom-up politics of negotiation and compromise which must lie at the heart of any worthwhile social democracy for our time. He is the most impressive chancellor of the exchequer since Roy Jenkins but, whereas Jenkins was (and is) an instinctive liberal pluralist, Brown fully shares his department’s bossy centralism.